It’s difficult to talk about Evan Rodrigues without talking about Jack Eichel.
The two only played together at Boston University for one year. Eichel was the American phenom who spent his freshman season in the national spotlight. Rodrigues was the gritty kid from Toronto who was surviving a rollercoaster of results with the Terriers and looking to make a statement his senior year.
On the top line for BU they came within a goal of winning the NCAA championship, falling to Providence, 3-2, in the title game.
The duo was together again Monday night, playing on the top line for the Buffalo Sabres in the final game of the Prospects Challenge at First Niagara Center.
While Rodrigues may have his story intertwined with Eichel, he’s creating his own identity on the ice and putting himself in a solid position for next week when the Sabres officially open their NHL training camp.
“Obviously you always want to be your own player,” Rodrigues said. “At the same time me and Jack have chemistry. It’s not me feeding off him, it’s us feeding off each other and I think he’ll say the same thing if you ask him that.
“We’re both smart players and we just seem to be able to read each other and know where each other is on the ice. I think it helped both of us last year and at this prospects challenge so far.”
Indeed Eichel is quick to sing the praises of his linemate.
“He’s a pretty good player, huh?” Eichel said. “I think he flew under the radar a little bit last year in college, and I definitely think he’s making a name for himself. You can see his skill. He’s a good player, that’s for sure, and I think he’s going to show a lot of people that. … I think Evan’s out to prove he’s a better player than he gets credit for.”
While Eichel went No. 2 in the NHL entry draft, Rodrigues, a native of Toronto, was an undrafted free agent. When BU’s season ended, he signed a two-year entry-level contract.
He had an impressive sophomore, finishing with 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) but then came BU’s slump when the team went just 10-21-4 and Rodrigues managed just 14 points (five goals, nine assists). That experience, however, made him a stronger player.
“After coming off a down year like that you have to tell yourself to just shake it off and move on. I think it really helped my resolve to be able to bounce back from such a down season,” Rodrigues said.
“I think my patience is one of the biggest things. Taking that extra second to make the right play and not just handing off my problem to someone else. Making sure I control the puck. Trying to make the smart play every time and I think four years of college definitely helped me and gave me a lot of confidence coming into this.”
Rodrigues usually makes the smart play – a quality that has impressed coach Randy Cunneyworth who said that the 22-year-old has a “real eye for the game.”
His skill “is evident,” Cunneyworth said. “But I think it’s his tenaciousness as well. He’s got a little grit. … We want a competitor, a guy who has the gumption where if he feels he was slighted a bit there, give a little back. I think that’s the way game is played and that’s how you get a little more room out there for the next opportunity. You don’t want to be foolish about it. … He’s got resolve. He’s not going to back down from anybody and he’s got the skill to do the damage.”
Eric Cornel has plenty to prove during this Prospects Challenge opportunity. The 19-year-old defenseman was a second-round draft pick of the Sabres in 2014. He finished his major-juniors career with the Peterborough Petes then played six games with the Rochester Americans at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Cunneyworth said in Cornel he has seen “flashes of real good things but we want to see it consistently. He’s got to separate himself a little bit here. I saw him quite a bit last year … they had a stronger team at the beginning of the year which translated into mores success for him. He was there to provide the leadership with a little less help. I’m sure that plays into your confidence.
“He’s a guy that needs support and he’s got really good skill, really good skating ability. He’s got to utilize his body a little bit more but all around I think he’s a capable player who can play a two-way game when tested at both ends.”
Cornel was a scratch for the Sabres along with Andrey Makarov, Daniel Catenacci, Justin Kea, Matt Garbowsky, Matt Prapavessis, Spiro Goulakos and Josh Chapman.
It’s going to take more than one game for Jack Eichel to change his fan allegiances, but the Bills certainly made a positive first impression on the guy from Boston.
Eichel, a big backer of the New England Patriots, attended the Bills’ 27-14 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday. It was his first time cheering for Buffalo in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“It was a great atmosphere, a great game,” Eichel said Monday in First Niagara Center. “I’d never been to a Bills game. Obviously, the fans are great and the team looked good. It was a great experience.”
The big test for the Bills and Eichel’s alliance will come Sunday when the Pats invade the Ralph. The PR-savvy Eichel wanted no part of picking a winner.
“It should be a good game,” he said. “It was a good win for the Bills yesterday and a good win for the Pats on Thursday.”